Aboard Air Force One
En Route Orlando, Florida
10:49 A.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good morning, everybody. Welcome aboard Air Force One as we wing our way to the Sunshine State. I have some brief opening remarks, and then we'll open it up to questions.
In Orlando this afternoon, the President will speak to NALEO about his efforts to help America's middle-class families and America's economy recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression. He'll note that we've made progress but we have a long way to go, and he's continuing to push Congress to act on legislation that will support our economy, support responsible homeowners, and put construction workers, first responders and teachers back to work.
I'll note some statistics recently cited by the Republican Party of Florida that bear out the progress that we've made and the work that remains to be done. Specifically, the Florida Republicans note that the unemployment rate in Florida has declined for 11 consecutive months and that more than 99,000 private sector jobs have been created in Florida alone over the last year and a half.
Yet the President is not satisfied. And unfortunately for our economy, Republicans in Congress won't act on legislation submitted by the President that would put by our estimates -- or by some estimates, I should say -- these are actually outside estimates -- 1 million people back to work. This stalemate isn't good for our economy, but it reflects the choice in this election.
The President believes we need economic policies, tax policies, and, yes, even immigration policies, that prioritizes the interests of middle-class families and where everyone in this country gets a fair shot and everyone plays by the same set of rules. Republicans merely want to double down on the economic policies like large tax cuts for the wealthy that led to the economic downturn in the first place.
So you can anticipate hearing more about those issues today, both in Orlando and in Tampa.
Q Do you anticipate the President laying out his vision for immigration reform beyond what he's already announced today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'll let the President's remarks speak for themselves, but you can certainly anticipate that the President will talk broadly about his efforts to strengthen middle-class families all across the country in terms of Wall Street reform that will protect the interests of middle-class families including Hispanic families; health care reform that has lowered health care costs and ensured access to health care for middle-class families all across the country, including many Hispanic families; and he'll also talk about immigration reform as well.
I think somebody's tape recorder may be playing instead of recording. I heard a little feedback. Sorry about that.
Q So no more specifics then on immigration reform going ahead?
MR. EARNEST: Tune in.
Q Josh, four years ago the President spoke to NALEO and that's when he said that immigration reform was going to be his priority from day one. And here we are four years later; what you have is just what the President did last Friday. What more can he -- will he make that pledge again to NALEO today that immigration reform will be his top priority starting in the new administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't want to say anything further to preview the President's remarks. But I will say that the President's record of prioritizing comprehensive immigration reform speaks for itself. Unfortunately, that’s a priority that’s been blocked time and time again by Republicans in Congress.
Republicans, over the last three years, have repeatedly blocked efforts to pass the DREAM Act specifically. But there are other efforts related to comprehensive immigration reform that have historically been supported by Republicans. John McCain has typically voiced support for those kinds of efforts in the past. Former President Bush, when he was in office, spent some time advocating for comprehensive immigration reform. These are the kinds of things where we should be able to build bipartisan support. But since the President took office, while he’s continued to make it a priority, Republicans have made it a priority to block those efforts at every turn.
Q The President is speaking about two hours after Marco Rubio speaks to NALEO. Has he reached out to Senator Rubio at all given the similarity between the Senator’s proposal and what the President did?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know of any calls at this point. I can check on that for you, though.
Q The last time the Democrats tried to pass anything on immigration was in December 2010, right -- the DREAM Act. What do you say to people wondering why the President didn’t move faster on this new deportation policy and save a lot of people a lot of grief in the past year and a half -- some young kids, anyway?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d refer you to my colleagues at DHS who can give you the background. There have been a series of policy decisions that have been made at DHS to streamline our immigration enforcement policies, to ensure that they align cleanly with our values, but also to ensure that we have an immigration enforcement system that operates effectively and efficiently.
And the directive that was issued by the Secretary of Homeland Security last week clarifies that dedicating significant resources to enforcing those policies against people who were brought to this nation as a child and who are currently -- who don’t currently pose a threat to their communities, haven’t -- aren’t wanted for -- well, I should say don’t pose a threat to their communities, that’s not an efficient use or an effective use of our immigration enforcement resources.
So that’s the reason that the Secretary issued the directive that she did. And that builds on a record of policy-making that they have at the Department of Homeland Security about how best to use the enforcement -- the immigration enforcement resources that they have.
So the President was obviously pleased with that announcement and spoke about it at the Rose Garden ceremony last week. But the President said on Friday, and has said consistently, that that directive related to the enforcement of immigration policies does not -- is not a substitute for congressional action; it’s not a substitute for a permanent solution to our broken immigration system.
Q Change of subjects. Can you update us on Holder and the Hill?
MR. EARNEST: Well, in terms of a specific update I would refer you to my colleagues at the Department of Justice who have been working on this issue for some time. As you know, this is something that they’ve been working on with congressional Republicans for 14 months. There have been nearly a dozen hearings with the Attorney General or other Department of Justice officials. They have turned over 7,600 pages of documents. So this is an ongoing process.
It’s also apparent that Republicans are succeeding in a strategy that they laid out for all of you at the beginning of last year, where they vowed to use their investigative powers to score political points against the administration and to further obstruct the President’s legislative agenda. It’s unfortunate that they’ve chosen to use their authorities in this way to promote this stalemate. But despite that, despite that calculated strategy on their part, we remain committed to trying to find a constructive solution.
Q Are you aware of the last time the President spoke to the Attorney General, last night or this morning? Do you know the last time they spoke? And then, secondly, actress Jane Lynch was spotted at the White House this morning. Do you have any more on that?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any information about the last time the President spoke to the Attorney General. I know that they’re in touch regularly on a whole range of issues and responsibilities that the Attorney General has. I don't know the last time that they had a conversation.
In terms of Jane Lynch, I wasn’t at the -- I was actually already onboard Air Force One when she was at the White House. So one of my colleagues at the White House should be able to fill you in on why she was there.
Q Josh, are there any negotiations going on either today or planned throughout the weekend before the vote on contempt?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d refer you to the Department of Justice on that. But I --
Q Do you know --
MR. EARNEST: I don't know of anything specific, but the Department of Justice is handling that matter, as they should.
Q Is the President confident that he can avoid a House vote on contempt, or is that inevitable?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't know if it’s inevitable. There's a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, and they seem hell-bent on using their investigative powers to promote a political stalemate and obstruct the President’s agenda and score political points. That's unfortunate, but that's a strategy that they laid out for all of you at the beginning of last year. So it’s unfortunate, but not particularly surprising.
Q Josh, the Post reported today that while he was the head of Bain Capital, Mitt Romney and the company invested in other companies that would outsource jobs overseas to China and India. Does the White House believe that that undercuts Romney’s sort of core -- sort of credentials for the -- that he’s been touting for the job? And will you press him harder on that? Will the President be talking about this specifically as he goes forward on both the campaign and other events that he does?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I understand that my colleagues at the campaign are going to have a little more to say about this this morning. What I will say for you, though, is I do think that it is an apt illustration of the differing approaches advocated in this election for strengthening our economy.
The President -- you just laid out for us the story that appeared in the Post that laid out the approach that Mr. Romney took when he was in the private sector. The President has been advocating an approach that is 100 degrees -- 180 degrees different from that, which is the President believes that we need to realign our tax policies so that we no longer provide incentives to companies who ship jobs overseas, and in fact we should implement tax policies that encourage companies to invest in America, to invest in facilities here, and to create jobs in America.
So there's a pretty -- there's no question there's a pretty stark difference between the values and approaches of the two candidates on that issue specifically.
Q Will the White House be doing stuff to -- will the campaign be doing stuff to sort of highlight that even more later?
MR. EARNEST: You should check with them on that.
Q Will the President talk about this today?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have anything to preview for you at this point.
Q Oh, go ahead. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: If I’m able to later today, I will, but I don't know if I’ll be able to give you any heads-up on that.
Q Josh, do you have any more on the Wall Street Journal report that claimed that there might have been some ethical -- a bad ethical situation between David Axelrod’s firm and health care as the negotiations were going on? There were new emails that were released. I know you guys have said it was an old issue that was brought up, but the emails newly released kind of bring light to it. Were there any ethical problems there, as the report --
MR. EARNEST: I saw the report that you’re referring to, and there's -- I disagree with your contention that there's anything new there. This was reported extensively two years ago that Mr. Axelrod was not involved in any way in the contract between AKDP and PhRMA on the issue of health care reform. And there’s nothing new that was reported in the Wall Street Journal or anywhere else that sheds anything -- that sheds any new light on that.
Q Josh, do you have any response to Moody’s downgrades of a number of banks today? I mean, how big of a deal do you see that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I saw those reports this morning as well. As you know, we don’t typically comment on the individual decisions of a specific ratings agency. What I can say is that the American banking system today is stronger and more stable as a result of the President’s efforts to push for strong reforms in the Dodd-Frank legislation. But the kinds of reforms, including things like higher capital requirements for banks, makes it less likely that taxpayers would be on the hook as a result of a bank failure, but adds strength to the system more generally because of those reforms.
But in terms of the individual action taken today, I don’t have a specific comment on it.
Q Josh, there’s been a couple new books in the works that I think are close to being published; they’re excerpted both in The New York Times and The Washington Post. One was about Michelle Obama’s ancestry and family history, and the other about the President and his youth. And I’m wondering if the White House is -- I can be more specific if you need -- but I’m wondering if the White House knows if the President has read those books and -- or the excerpts of those books, I should say, and what his reaction is. And Michelle Obama, if she’s read it -- the same question.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if they’ve -- to be honest with you, I don’t know if they’ve seen those excerpts or not.
Q Does the White House generally have a response about the books? I mean, they both raise some interesting questions, both about racial issues, but also about -- in particular, the book about the President, about his -- sort of his own biography, Dreams of My Father, and some of the anecdotes he brought up. It sort of raises some questions about sort of the accuracy of some of those, even beyond maybe what the President acknowledged at the foreword of that book, about some of the composite characters.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not sure about that last part. I mean, the President was pretty candid in the foreward of the book, as you point out, that he was using a narrative to try to tell a story that did reflect his life. But he was very candid and upfront, literally -- actually, in this case, by writing it in the foreward -- about how the story was told.
And I think Mr. Marannis himself, in fact, talked about that, and talked about the differing approaches that the two took to telling the story, and that both have been candid about the approach that they’ve taken in that regard. But in terms of -- I would refer you to the specific language in the foreward of the book, because the President really is pretty -- was explicit at the time that he wrote the book about the kind of techniques that he used to tell that story.
Q And you have no comment -- no knowledge or comment about whether they’ve seen the book? You don’t know --
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t talked to him about that.
Q Josh, there’s a story in the AP today about frustration among military and intelligence officials about attacks by militants on U.S. troops in Afghanistan who then flee to Pakistan. How firm is the President about not using U.S. troops on the ground to chase those militants into Pakistan?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not in a position to comment on the specifics that were included in that AP report today. But our concern about militants using Pakistan as a safe haven from which to launch attacks against our forces are well known. That's something that we raise both publicly and privately with the Pakistani government.
We'll take steps necessary to mitigate that threat. We value our relationship with Pakistan and we'll continue to find ways to work together to combat those terrorist groups that pose a threat both to the United States forces, but also to innocent Pakistani civilians.
Q When you say you'll take steps to mitigate that threat, does that mean that you could potentially send U.S. soldiers across the border to chase down those militants?
MR. EARNEST: I won't preview the kinds of things that are being discussed, and frankly, whether or not they're even being discussed by the administration. But I can tell you that this is something -- this threat is something that we have talked about quite extensively both publicly and privately. It's something that we have raised with the Pakistanis and we remain committed to finding ways to work with them to combat the threat that these groups pose both to U.S. forces, but also to innocent Pakistani civilians.
Q -- if the President read or watched any of Romney's speech yesterday to NALEO, to the same group? Did he watch that? And then also, did he watch the basketball game last night, and any reaction to the outcome?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know if the President watched all of Mr. Romney's speech. Frankly, I doubt that he did. But I'm sure that he's seen news reports of it this morning. And I don't know about the basketball game, actually. I will circle back with you guys on whether or not he watched the basketball game or whether he had a specific reaction to the game.
Q -- speak to NALEO today, and it comes on his reports that he's looking to scrub the voter roles. Some Democrats are suggesting that that's an attempt to get rid of Hispanic voters. Does the President have that concern, specifically in Florida, but also in other states --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you as a general matter, not specifically related to the Florida activities, that the President does believe strongly in protecting the right of citizens to vote and cast a ballot in an election, particularly in an election that's as important as this.
I know that the Department of Justice has been working with the state of Florida on this -- I know that they've actually raised some serious concerns about this as well. And I'd refer you to them for the specifics of those concerns.
Q Can they sue them?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know exactly where they stand in terms of -- on that process, but I know that serious and specific concerns have been made. But for more details, like where they stand in the legal proceedings, I'd refer you to my colleagues at the Department of Justice.
Okay? All right, thanks, everybody. Enjoy the ride.
11:05 A.M. EDT